Goshen News, Goshen, IN

September 23, 2013

READER POINT OF VIEW: Coming to Terms with Goshen’s ‘Sundown Town’ History


— As Prof. Ervin Beck’s letter stated in Wednesday’s edition of the News, I inadvertently perpetuated a local legend in my Sept. 4 letter (“Two steps toward civil discourse”). I said that Marian Anderson, an internationally renowned African American singer, “needed to stay at the Hotel Elkhart” after performing at Goshen College in 1958 because of Goshen’s “‘sundown law’ tradition.”

In fact, as Prof. Beck clarified, the GC Lecture-Music Series Committee in the late 1950s customarily arranged for overnight accommodations at the Hotel Elkhart for all its honored guests. Steve Nolt, a GC history professor, notes that a few years ago a student doing a History Seminar paper went through the Lecture-Music Series files and “determined that all lecture-music guests, including all white guests, stayed in Elkhart.”

Bigger picture

There’s a bigger picture here, however, and some backstory.

In doing additional research and reflection on this issue and related matters, I’ve learned that Goshen—from about 1900 (give or take a decade) until the 1960s—was one of approximately 100 Indiana municipalities that were considered “sundown towns.”

In his 2005 book titled Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, Harvard-trained sociologist Dr. James Loewen defines a sundown town as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it.” The means of exclusion included:

• Violence

• Threats of violence

• Vandalism of vehicles and other personal property

• Racist verbal harassment

• Profiling and arrest by local police

• Restrictive property deeds

• Social ostracism, especially from schools, churches and community clubs

• Refusal of service in commercial establishments

• Signs at city limits

• Ordinances

According to Loewen, Goshen shared this notoriety with thousands of towns, cities, suburbs and counties throughout the United States (especially in the Midwest) from about 1890 until deep into the 20th century. Loewen also identifies Wakarusa as a second sundown town in Elkhart County.

In a 2008 Christian Century review of Loewen’s book, Nolt agrees with the author that sundown towns were a form of ethnic cleansing, which also sometimes involved Jews, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans. But African Americans bore the brunt of the practice.

Exclusion largely social and cultural

Mike Puro, mayor of Goshen from 1988 to 1997, informed me recently that when he was Goshen’s clerk-treasurer in the mid-1980s he thoroughly researched the matter and found no evidence of “sundown laws” on Goshen’s books. And neither Puro nor Allan Kauffman, Goshen’s mayor since ’97, is aware of any city-limits signage barring African Americans; both indicate that Goshen’s methods of exclusion were largely social and cultural. They add, however, that some property deeds for subdivisions (such as the Fidler Addition and Carter Road) included language that excluded African Americans—and Jews, according to Puro, a ’67 graduate of Goshen High School, who recalls that he had no African American classmates.

Indeed, in a four-page report in 2012 titled “Revisiting a ‘Sundown Town’: Race & Culture in Goshen” by a Goshen College class called Reporting for the Public Good, two students confirm the comments of Puro and Kauffman regarding property deeds: “A restrictive covenant that appeared on some Goshen properties in the 1930s and 1940s [reads]: ‘No persons of any other race but the white race shall use or occupy any building or any lot (except in the capacity of being servants to the white occupants).’” The writers quote Kauffman as saying, “‘It’s not a proud moment in our history.’”

Though in Shelley v. Kraemer the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 declared such deeds unenforceable, Beth Hostetler Berry, a teacher education professor at Goshen College for 20 years, was made aware of the existence of such a restrictive covenant on Carter Road in the mid to late 1950s.

Personal note: At a well-attended (more than two dozen guests) block party my wife and I hosted in our 13th Street backyard in May 1987 one of our neighbors (now deceased) suddenly began rhapsodizing about the “good old days” in Goshen when “colored people” had to be out of town by sunset. He also complained about the influx of Hispanics and bemoaned the fact that Goshen wasn’t the way it used to be.

‘Race Relations in Goshen’

Offering an African American perspective on Goshen’s racist reputation in a January 1987 Dr. King Day speech to the Goshen Noon Kiwanis was John Stith (also deceased), who had begun serving as Goshen’s postmaster in 1977.

In an address titled “Race Relations in Goshen,” Stith said that when he was a high school student in South Bend in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he traveled here more than once for the Goshen Relays. “Regardless of whether you won or lost,” he said, “you had to leave town quick.”

After the speech, a newspaper reporter informed Stith that the following sentence appeared in the Goshen Chamber of Commerce’s introduction to the Maple City as late as 1978 in the Goshen City Directory: “Crime is at a minimum and contributing in large measure to the absence of crime is the character of the population—97.5 percent native-born white, 2 percent foreign-born white, .5 percent non-white.” Stith said “it does not surprise me” that the quotation appeared in the ’78 directory.

Recent research indicates that the wording of the end of that sentence in the 1939 to 1955 directories was: “… and no Negro population” instead of “.5 percent non-white.” By 1962 it said simply: “97.5 percent native-born white, 2.5 percent foreign-born white.” Soon thereafter “.5” was added.

Also in the ’39—and ’37—Goshen directories was an explanation of symbols: “Colored persons are designated by ©. The publishers are very careful in using this symbol but do not assume any responsibility in case of error.”

Travel nightmares for African Americans

Even in the early 1960s, Stith also noted in his ’87 address, his family would always pack a lunch when traveling south out of South Bend “because there was no place to eat along the way—unless you happened to come across a black community.”

Beginning in 1936, according to Black America Web (April 24, 2013), an African American New Yorker named Victor Green began publishing The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook for African American travelers in the United States. The site says: “Because of the racist conditions that existed from segregation, blacks needed a reference manual to guide them to integrated or black-friendly establishments.”

The book’s introduction included this statement: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.” The last edition of The Green Book was printed in 1964 after the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.

The Aug. 28 News transcript of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech contains this sentence: “We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.”

Hotel Elkhart vs. Hotel Goshen

The Hotel Elkhart clearly had higher-quality accommodations in 1958 than either of the Goshen hotels: the Hotel Hattle on East Lincoln Avenue or the Hotel Goshen at Main and Clinton streets (where First State Bank now has a branch). But a 24-year-old student at Goshen Biblical Seminary (then based at GC) named Victor Stoltzfus was troubled by rumors among GC students that Marian Anderson had to go to Elkhart for her lodging.

So a few days after Anderson’s performance, he personally went downtown and spoke with the manager of the Hotel Goshen. In the 2012 GC report, Stoltzfus says, “‘I asked why an artist of the stature of Marian Anderson would not be welcome in a Goshen motel or hotel. He told me that several investors put their life savings into the hotel he managed. He also said that salesmen and others coming to Goshen would avoid a hotel in which a black person had slept. He really feared loss of business.’”

Stoltzfus, who would go on to serve as president of Goshen College from 1984 to 1996, told me recently that the manager “had an anguished look on his face as I talked to him—and he was really trying to persuade me that he was being a reasonable person.”

So, regardless of the accommodations quality question, it appears that in the 1950s GC officials “knew better” than to even ask Goshen hotel owners or managers to provide lodging for their distinguished African American guests.

Goshen News poll in 1961

A few years later the Goshen News conducted a poll of the town’s two hotels and four other overnight establishments; the article appeared February 7, 1961. Under the headline “Negroes Not Exactly Welcome Here As Overnight Guests, Poll Reveals,” the first sentence reads: “Goshen residents have been pointing an accusing finger at the South for its integration inadequacies but a poll of Goshen motels and hotels today revealed that Negroes aren’t exactly welcome as overnight guests in the city of Goshen.”

The News reported that just one manager (of the Hattle) had recently provided overnight lodging to an African American. The other five were either forthright about their denial of accommodations to African Americans or declined to disclose their policies.

In response to that article, Ray Keim, pastor of East Goshen Mennonite Church at the time, wrote the following letter that appeared in the News on Valentine’s Day 1961: “This is to commend you for your bravery in releasing the facts about the attitude of hotel and motel owners in Goshen relative to accepting Negroes as overnight guests. I believe that a gentle but persistent pressure such as you applied in that report will help awaken consciences without causing violent reactions that only do harm. God bless you for your stand.” Keim of Goshen died this past April.

Anderson, Einstein and King

Marian Anderson also had sung at Goshen College in 1953, and Martin Luther King Jr. came to the college in March 1960 for an address titled “The Future of Integration.” Willard Smith, a GC history professor and chair of the Lecture-Music Series Committee, invited King to stay at his home in 1960, much as Jewish physicist Albert Einstein had welcomed Anderson into his home in Princeton, N.J., in 1937. However, according to retired GC Prof. John Smith (Willard Smith’s nephew), King left Indiana immediately after his ’60 speech due to other commitments.

In the 2012 GC report, Nolt states that the overall message of Loewen’s book is important and that “‘communities who fail to acknowledge their racial past may have a harder time moving forward in a positive way.’”

Continues Nolt: “‘It’s not like we need to dwell on this and say the community is forever marked by it, but the other extreme would be to just not acknowledge it at all, which could blind us to ways that prejudice might continue.’”

Lee Roy Berry Jr., an African American Goshen attorney and government professor at Goshen College for 40 years, began teaching at GC in 1969. He endured a couple of profiling incidents with city and county police in the mid-1970s, but for the most part he and his family have lived peacefully for 40 years in the home they built in 1973 just west of Goshen’s city limits.

Regarding Goshen’s racial history, Berry stated recently, “We need to tell these stories. It’s easier to have a false understanding of our community than it is to deal with ambiguities. This process helps to foster healthy humility for all of us. And historical analysis helps to ground us better and see reality more clearly.”

Dan Shenk of Goshen is owner/operator of CopyProof, an editing business he founded in 1990. He was a reporter for the Elkhart Truth from 1986 to 1999, primarily covering Goshen. In 1993 he and Emory Tate Jr. established Goshen Community Schools’ Chess for Scholastic Success program, which continues today. Shenk has a B.A. in Communication, 1975, from Goshen College. He moved to Goshen in 1965, left in 1978 and returned in 1986. He and his wife, Vera, have two adult sons.